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  • Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy by Roger French, Andrew Cunningham
  • Irven M. Resnick
Roger French and Andrew Cunningham. Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy. Hants, UK: Scolar Press, 1996. Pp. x + 298. Cloth, $68.95.

This is a peculiar book that depicts thirteenth-century natural philosophy as wholly dependent on the theological interests of the mendicant orders. For the Friars, “Natural philosophy was a study in which the central concerns were the detection, admiration and appreciation of God’s existence, goodness, providence, munificence, forethought and provision for His creation” (4). Although conceived as “a positive contribution to the discipline of the history of science” (3), the work begins and ends with the claim that medieval natural philosophers were not engaged in science.

One difficulty is that the authors never make clear what they mean by science, although they evidently understand that it entails a repudiation of metaphysics and a doctrine of nature’s radical autonomy. Consequently, for French and Cunningham medieval “science” is a mythic construct of modern historians, since “[t]here was no scientific tradition (in the modern sense of the term ‘scientific’) of looking at nature in the thirteenth century, only a religio-political way of doing so” (273).

Thus, when summarizing the accomplishments of Roger Bacon, they note that “[Bacon] has been credited, along with Grosseteste, with creating early ‘experimental science’. Bacon could not of course have been a ‘scientist’ because he lived in the wrong [End Page 623] age for this” (238). This seemingly casual conclusion is rather stunning not only in its own right, but also as a revelation of the authors’ own effort to disenfranchise medieval ‘scientists’ for having had the misfortune of living too soon.

French and Cunningham propose that polemical or apologetical interests urged the Friars to study nature as a response to various heretics and especially the Cathars who, seemingly like moderns, sought to disengage the natural world from the Christian God, while using the vocabulary of Aristotle’s libri naturales. However this central argument demands better support. Since the authors can cite only one surviving Cathar text—De duobus principiis (ca. 1230)—almost everything known of this group is derived from anti-Cathar polemics. Based on this single text the authors can say no more than that it used “what looks very much like a commentary on Aristotle’s Physics or Metaphysics,” (134) but fail to identify more precisely its sources. It is clear that thirteenth-century orthodox polemics increasingly relied on Aristotelian materials, but the conclusion that natural philosophers did so only in response to heretics who beat them to the Aristotelian punch seems tendentious. The historian will likely remain unconvinced that the unparalleled translating activity of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries—the rendering into Latin of Arabic scientific knowledge (as in Constantine the African’s Pantegni or Adelard of Bath’s Quaestiones naturales), Greek medical literature (e.g. Galen’s Methodus medendi translated by Gerard of Cremona and Burgundio of Pisa) and mathematics (e.g. Euclid’s Optics, Theodosius’s Spherics, Archimedes’ On the Quadrature of the Circle, and Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos and Almagest) culminating with thirteenth-century translations of Aristotle’s biological works—should all have stemmed from a preoccupation with heresy.

A further shortcoming of this book is the limited attention given to works on natural philosophy by the Friars themselves. The book’s first seven of eleven chapters explore the educational establishments in which natural philosophy arose: first monastic and cathedral schools, and then the universities. The works of individual Friars receive only the briefest summary. Among the Dominican natural philosophers Albertus Magnus—the patron saint of scientists and one of a very few scholastics to have commented on all of Aristotle’s biological works—is awarded only five pages. For his mastery of Aristotle’s libri naturales Albertus has been called “the dominant figure in Latin learning and natural science of the thirteenth century.” (Cf. Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science [New York: Macmillan, 1929], 2:521) Albertus described not only the natural world but also explored the philosophical foundations for scientific knowledge. Yet curiously French and Cunningham give much more attention...


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